SCO Summit: Putin needs Xi Jinping’s support more than ever after setbacks in Ukraine

The summit, in which the pair praised growing ties and railed against NATO expansion, came three weeks before Putin ordered his tanks into Ukraine. Whether or not the subject of war came up in their conversations, one thing is now clear: after seven months, the invasion is anything but planable.

Putin has just endured perhaps the worst opening week of the war, when his troops were routed in Kiev and forced to retreat.

Ukraine’s recapture of more than 3,000 square kilometers (more than 1,100 square miles) in the country’s northeast in recent days — more than Russia has captured in all of its operations since April — is yet another humiliating loss for Putin. he saw his invasion thwarted and his friend list dwindling globally.

Criticism of Putin is growing among Russian supporters, and it is clear that he may win. Fortunately for Putin, an opportunity presents itself on Thursday, when he holds his first face-to-face meeting with Xi since the invasion began, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan.

The much-talked-about relationship between Russia and China has only strengthened since the start of the war. Experts say Putin will probably have more to do with Beijing than ever after his setbacks on the battlefield.

“Russia relies on China to show the world that their strong bond is a symbol of successful international isolation, despite harsh Western sanctions,” said Velina Tchakarova, director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy.

At a time when the West’s resolve against Russia seems to be hardening, and as more nations join NATO and support Ukraine, the longer the war drags on, the more powerful the Western nation in the world would be, the more valuable it would be to Putin.

“China’s support helps Moscow spread Russian narratives, such as blaming EU sanctions for the food crisis, blaming NATO for starting the war. It creates a common denominator: dissatisfaction with the US-led West and a positive case for closer ties with China,” said Tchakarova.

Russia has spoken of its support for China in recent days. Last week, China’s top lawmaker, Li Zhanshu, met with the speaker of the Russian State Duma and other Russian lawmakers in Moscow.

According to the Duma, Li said that “China understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, especially the situation in Ukraine… We see that the United States and its NATO allies are expanding their presence near Russian borders. , national security and Russian seriously threatening the lives of citizens.”

However, these references were not included in the Chinese reading of the meeting, which raises the question of whether China is willing to formally support Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine shows no signs of ending.

“Obviously, China does not want Russia to be overtaken and in an ideal world would take a stable leadership from Putin more than anything else,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London.

However, he added that “Ukraine will be an inconvenient problem that Beijing would prefer to disappear. Of course, China does not trust NATO and the West, but that does not mean that it is Russia’s best friend. China, after all, is interested. , and this instability it does not help China at all.’

Putin's Kharkiv debacle is his biggest challenge yet.  It has left him few options

Viewing China’s self-interested aid to Russia so far could indicate where Beijing’s thinking lies, especially in light of next month’s key political meeting in Beijing, where Xi is expected to take a third term in office. in power, cementing his role as China’s most powerful leader in decades.

Trade between the two countries grew in the first six months of 2022, despite the war. China agreed last week to start paying for Russian gas in yuan and rubles instead of dollars, ending many sanctions imposed on Russian energy exports.

This economic support, along with blaming NATO and the West for the war, is in China’s interest. What experts say would be in China’s best interest, however, would be to provide Russia with the military support it appears to need as its wars continue.

Gains in Ukraine over the weekend, international sanctions, export controls and strategic mistakes by Moscow have made it clear that Russia may have a military supply problem. Last week, a US official told CNN that Putin was in the process of buying millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea.

“It doesn’t mean that supplies are necessarily exhausted, but that the border could be crossed into contingency stocks for a wider conflict and/or a future joint,” Joseph Dempsey, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told CNN. “Even if the conflict ends today, it may take many years to make up for what has been lost in Ukraine.”

China's top lawmaker Li Zhanshu has arrived in the Russian city of Vladivostok to attend the seventh Eastern Economic Forum, becoming the highest-ranking Chinese official to travel to the country since Moscow invaded Ukraine.

Since China’s money is welcome in Moscow, the longer the war drags on, the more severe Russia’s shortages may become. Export controls make it difficult to import weapons — along with the tools to make them. And for the kind of gear Russia needs, there are a limited number of sources. If China won’t help, Russia’s chances are even slimmer.

Russia’s potential disappointment, Dempsey says, risks creating another complication.

“Of course, there is a wider concern about arms supplies to Russia that an increasingly desperate Russia may be willing to give in return, particularly to Iran and North Korea – the latter of which remains under a comprehensive UN arms embargo.”

So what can Putin expect to announce after his meeting with Xi? There will certainly be more commitments to the economic relationship, and China is unlikely to suddenly tone down its rhetoric about the West.

But Putin’s reality is that Xi can only do so much to counter Western action against Russia. And after a week of heavy losses on the battlefield, that must worry a man who once thought his war would be over in a matter of days.